First there was Android. Then there was Android Wear. Now, Google's building a platform that lives in your clothes, and it starts with Project Jacquard.
Jacquard, a connected version of Levi's Commuter Trucker jacket, was an idea born out of Google's ATAP (Advanced Technology and Projects), the skunkworks division originally belonging to Motorola, also responsible for Project Tango. The Jacquard jacket uses touch-sensitive fabric to act as an extension of your smartphone, and marks the latest idea to make it out of ATAP and into a purchasable project.
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But like most people, you probably haven't been crying out for a connected smart jacket – so what does Jacquard have to offer? I've been trying it to find that out.
Google is not an apparel company, we don't want to be an apparel company
Ivan Poupyrev, the lead brain behind Jacquard, told me the connected jacket was inspired by what he saw a key problem in wearables; it's always about adding more. Instead, his idea was to put technology into something people already wore, which ended up being an existing Levi's jacket. Google created a conductive fabric which could be woven into the jacket and integrated into Levi's production lines; Levi's provided the jacket as well as guidance on what features Google should add, the only giveaway being a tag that attaches to the left cuff.
This tag is what creates the connection to your smartphone and turns the sleeve into a touch-sensitive pad, letting you answer calls, control music playback, and even navigate directions with a tap or a swipe. Jacquard sources its power from this tag, which Google says will last about two weeks on a single charge, and replenishing it is as simple as plugging it into your computer's USB port.
The Commuter Trucker jacket is primarily aimed at cyclists, even though Ivan says he believes non-cyclists will still find use in Jacquard. But it's certainly a demographic that makes sense for technology designed for times your hands are occupied. Say, for example, you're on a bike and need directions, but don't want to check your phone and risk swerving into oncoming traffic. Jacquard will give you turn-by-turn navigations.
All interactions are done through the cuff, with either taps, a swipe outwards, or a swipe inwards – and all can be assigned on a whim through the accompanying app. For example, while listening to music via the phone I was able to swipe outwards to skip to the next track, while two taps would tell me the currently playing song (for when I'm trawling through Spotify's Discover Weekly). Meanwhile you'll be alerted to incoming notifications through haptic feedback in the cuff.
Right now the commands you can assign are limited to a small handful, which also includes a counter (maybe you want to track how many cups of coffee you're chugging a day) and a voice to tell you the time. You can also make the LED on the cuff tag illuminate different colours to tell you a certain person is trying to reach you, but I should also note that none of the sounds come from the jacket itself; everything you hear will be either from the speaker on your phone, which can be placed in the breast pocket, or through a connected headphone.
One of the most impressive things so far has been how little delay there is between swiping/tapping the cuff and the phone responding. Poupyrev told me he has a long list of other features he wants to add, which he says could be easily be rolled out through updates to the app. Google kept emphasising to me that it wants to listen to feedback and shape the future of Jacquard based on what people actually want to do. Maybe there's a use for that cuff it hasn't even thought of yet – but you'll need to let it know.
Jacquard is, above all, a comfortable, stylish jacket. Google has achieved its goal of creating a wearable people will at least be happy to wear, but at $350 it's also more expensive than Levi's non-connected alternative – especially for a garment that can only be washed ten times in its lifetime. That news has riled a lot of people, but then Levi's has always advised people keep their denim washes to an absolute minimum. In fact CEO Charles Bergh once said people shouldn't wash their jeans at all.
We want to create a single platform
"We have to set expectations," said Poupyrev, "so we put ten washes, and that's based on this specific garment." However he also told me that, at the end of the day, people shouldn't need to take any more care with Jacquard than they would with one of Levi's non-tech jackets.
This is also just the first of what could soon be many connected garments made in collaboration with Google. "We want to create a single platform," said Poupyrev, who sees this extending beyond Levi's and into other types of smart clothing. "A jacket has a different use case to a pair of trousers or a shirt, so the specific technology used will be defined by the garment."
But while Google might be getting more serious as a hardware company in other areas, it has no ambitions to start any textile mills any time soon. "Google is not an apparel company, we don't want to be an apparel company," said Poupyrev.
So what will Google's metric of success for Jacquard look like? "If consumers want more features, that will be a measurement of success," said Poupyrev. With the jacket now on sale, it won't be long before we see whether Google's idea is a hit. I just hope that, like many of the projects that sprung out of Mountain View before it, Jacquard doesn't get left high and dry.
We'll have a full review of Google's Jacquard once we've taken it for a few bike rides. Watch this space.